B.F. Skinner and the Teaching Machine

Burrhus Frederic Skinner (1904-90) is certainly one of the most prominent names in psychology, behaviorism, social philosophy and his work has significantly influenced education. By his own accounts, his interest in education came from a visit he made to his daughter’s 4th grade class. After listening to a mathematics lesson he was in disbelief that the techniques used to teach children completely refuted all known theories and facts about human learning processes. In his view, those techniques did not work because praise and punishment are believed to only generate artificial motivation and do not create genuine interest in what is to be learned.

In the above video, “taken from a lecture by B.F. Skinner and updated to include 21st Century technology”(according to its creator) he discusses the idea of a Teaching Machine:

“a device which creates vastly improved conditions for effective studying. What are Teaching Machines? How are they used? What can they teach? Who prepares the materials they teach? and how does this material differ from textbooks, lectures, and educational television?”

With each technology that comes along, and in the case of this video – tablets, we ask ourselves the same questions. The true fact is: teaching machines, whatever they may be, can be great tools used in the improvement of teaching and learning. According to Skinner, they may offer personalized, instant feedback that traditional exercises, tests, and quizzes sometimes cannot.

Teaching machines are not the end-all be-all solution for all educational problems, but they can definitely be of assistance in the teaching and learning process as long as the questions raised above are asked:

“How are they used? What can they teach? Who prepares the materials they teach? and how does this material differ from textbooks, lectures, and educational television?”

Most importantly, as educators we should always ask: “How does it fit my educational goals? Does it fit the students I am teaching now? Does it help me assess students learning in a way I couldn’t before? Is this showcasing the problem or subject matter in a more effective way that will make my students learn more effectively?” There is no right or wrong answers those questions as long as they are being asked and thought of continuously.

 

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About the CETL

The Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Texas Wesleyan University (CETL) promotes a student-centered university by providing resources and professional growth opportunities to faculty on enhancing instructional practice, integrating technology, and promoting essential student skills.

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